What do you envision when you think of Warsaw? I wasn’t really sure what to expect on our first of what became many visits to this Central European capital. If you’ve studied Polish history, you know that it is tragic, and that Warsaw itself was completely destroyed during WWII. But if you visit, what you’ll experience is a bustling city that has rebuilt — and continues to build — in a phenomenal way.
Warsaw is also an unexpectedly fantastic place for families. With beautiful parks, fountains, palaces and playgrounds, impressive science and history museums, an Old Town square and a deep appreciation for art, culture and music (after all, Poland is the birthplace of Chopin), the city has a lot to offer. What’s more, the ease of getting around using public transportation and the break on your wallet in comparison to other European capitals when it comes to, well, everything make it all the sweeter. Here are some of the highlights for a 72-hour trip.
Start by taking a walk into the heart of Warsaw: the Old Town. Although decimated during WWII, the Old Town was entirely rebuilt after the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Its reconstruction, which was carried out using prewar sketches, paintings and photographs, is a testament to the Poles’ tenacity to rise from the ruins and restore the pride of their capital city. Walking down the cobblestone alleys, you will experience the “once upon a time” of Warsaw’s golden days and see colorful medieval-style homes that frame the Old Town square (Ryenk Starego Miasta), as well as one of the city’s most beloved monuments, Syrenka (the Mermaid). The Mermaid is the symbol of Warsaw and is featured in the city’s coat of arms. She’s flanked by a fountain that kids can play in during summertime; in wintertime, she adorns the center of a skating rink illuminated by Christmas lights.
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TIP: Kids will get a kick out of learning about the legend of the Warsaw Mermaid, which you can read here. Her image can be found in many places — both in plain sight and “hidden” across the city. Pick up a Mermaid-spotting map (we got ours at the Palace of Science and Culture), and let the kids engage in a fun and interactive way to discover the city by finding her on everything from city buses to statues along the Wisla River and at popular museums.
As you move through Old Town, you can’t miss the impressive Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski), which was reconstructed in the 1970s and ’80s. Dating back to the 14th century, the castle has been the residence of Polish kings and the president as well as the seat of Parliament. The tour (best for adults and older kids) will take you through the King’s Chambers, the Houses of Parliament and the opulent Great Assembly Hall, replete with golden walls. Just past the castle, you can find St. Anna’s Church Bell Tower. Climb its 150 stone steps to the top for a stunning, panoramic view of the Old Town.
By now, your kids will likely be begging for lunch, and I have the perfect spot: Cafe Bristol. This historic cafe has been a popular meeting place for Warsaw residents for more than a century. The cafe is known for its desserts, which is easy to discern when you see the mouthwatering selection of pastries and cakes behind its long glass counter, but the lunch menu is also excellent. A children’s menu is available.
In the late afternoon, head to the nearby Saxon Gardens (Ogrod Saski). Built in the early 1700s, this is one of the oldest public parks in the world and was formerly the home of the Saxon Palace (which, you guessed it, was flattened during WWII). You can find one of the palace’s surviving columns at the entrance to Saxon Gardens. It has found a new home in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an eternally burning, guarded flame that commemorates fallen Polish soldiers. Kids will enjoy watching the changing of the guard, which happens every hour.
The gardens are home to a beautiful fountain that illuminates at night, a shaded playground, sculptures of mythical features, benches that play Chopin music (so much fun), a large marble sundial and a water tower in the shape of a Roman colonnade. It’s a nice place for the kids to let out some extra energy, as well as pay homage to the city’s history and fallen heroes.
Begin your second day with our absolute favorite Warsaw activity: a visit to the Copernicus Science Center. This is truly the best, most hands-on science museum for kids that I have ever visited. It features a host of exhibits on subjects ranging from air, wind and water to animals, the human body and much, much more. There’s also a robotics theater, mini-labs, family workshops and a planetarium. The museum’s mission is to give children the skills to become true explorers by mixing learning and fun; it accomplished that goal plenty-fold! Plan for a good three to five hours at the museum. Seriously, you will have to drag your kids out of this place. The museum is also set on the banks of the Wisla River, and on a nice day, you can enjoy the riverfront walk as well as some of the museum’s outdoor exhibits.
TIP: Buy your museum tickets online ahead of time. It will save you from waiting in what is usually a very long line. The restaurant, which is housed in the museum but run separately, oddly cannot be accessed during your time in the museum; you have to “leave” the museum in order to enter the restaurant. So plan to either eat ahead of your visit or after your visit is finished. There is a small snack bar on the second level of the museum that you can access during your visit. Also, note that the museum is closed on Mondays.
In the afternoon, take in some fresh air at Warsaw’s largest and most beautiful park, Royal Park Lazienki. Centrally located, this park has mini-golf, horseback riding, boat rides, exhibitions, a palace museum, coffee bars, a duck pond, peacocks and a playground. There are designated areas for picnics and running around on the pristine lawn. If you are visiting between May and September, enjoy free concerts given at the base of the Frederic Chopin Monument.
As the sun starts to set, head down to the Palace of Culture and Science. A vestige of communist times and formerly the site of the Communist Party HQ in Poland, the tall, looming landmark appears like something out of Ghostbusters. It was originally commissioned by Stalin as a “gift” to the Polish nation from the Soviet people. While most Poles will tell you the best view of the city is from inside the building (because when inside it, you cannot see it), the palace actually has an impressive viewing tower on the 30th floor from which you can see all of the city.
The palace is also home to temporary exhibitions. We happened to catch a “Gallery of Steel Figures” exhibit that had everything from life-size Transformers to C3PO, Lamborghinis and the Iron Throne (very apropos), all made of steel and ripe for photographing, climbing into and adorning. We also caught a totally different exhibit on spiders.
On your final day, steep yourself into Polish history by visiting the Polish Army Museum. Kids will think this place is simply awesome. Why? You can view tanks, airplanes, swords, axes, battle gear and everything that brave military men have wielded over time at this indoor/outdoor museum. Cost is a whopping 30zl ($8 US) for a family ticket. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan accordingly.
If you have older children, also consider visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Opened on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of fighting in the city, it commemorates the ill-fated uprising of 1944. One of most visited sites in Warsaw, the museum is both interactive and engaging. Exhibitions show the struggle of everyday life before and during the uprising. Don’t miss the museum tower, which features a view of Freedom Park and the Memorial Wall. Children will enjoy seeing the hanging replica of a Liberator B-24J bomber and hearing the story of the Allied air drops.
Post-museum, bring down the intensity a notch by finding yourself a E. Wedel Cafe (there are several in the city center). Indulge in some of Poland’s best chocolate — I’m not joking when I say you might have to roll yourself out of this place. The trio of hot chocolates is a crowd-pleaser. You will definitely get the chocolate fix you’re looking for and delight the kids all the same.
Take all of that newfound chocolate-induced energy and make your way to the Multimedia Fountain Park. Opened in 2011, the fountains are a short walk north of the Old Town. They are a visual delight combining music, light, and lots and lots of water. While the fountains run during the day, the real show begins after dark, when 367 nozzles fire 800 cubic meters of water 80 feet into the air. Using nearly 300 colored LED lights and a laser projector, the show offers stunning visual effects (producing displays of things like the Warsaw Mermaid and dragons) synchronized to music that ranges from Chopin to Lady Gaga. The shows, which take place May through September, are so popular that it is advisable to arrive early to stake out an optimal viewing spot.
The luxurious, historic Hotel Bristol is located in a prime spot, just outside the entrance to the Old Town. It is only a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the Royal Palace and Old Town Square. The hotel has a number of room configurations that work well for families, plus a heated pool and the best buffet breakfast I have experienced in Poland.
What do you envision now when you think of Warsaw? With a bit of culture, a bit of history, a bit of science, a bit of chocolate and a lot of green space, this city has a lot to offer any traveler, and families in particular. To experience it all, visit during the warm months of June-October. If you do visit during the colder months, bring warm clothes (and indulge in a few more hot chocolates)!
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